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Are asset forfeiture laws being abused by police officers?

Residents of Outagamie, Wisconsin, may be aware that certain legal procedures, including bankruptcy petitions, can result in the seizure or liquidation of personal property. In most circumstances, the disposal of assets is usually a court-approved, and moderated process. However law enforcement officials have begun asset possession as a means of preventing crime.

This practice, which has recently been corroborated by video evidence, stems from the legal authority given to police officers to take possession of anyone's assets, including real estate and vehicles, even when the person is not known to have broken any laws. Per the video, officers could, for example, seize a person's vehicle in anticipation of him or her driving while drunk. Other examples of seized property include valuable ornaments, houses, and even cash; the goods are then auctioned and the proceeds added to funds allocated for police.

Police and prosecutors contend that such asset forfeiture is a means of preventing such crime as drug trafficking and drunken driving.

The process is seen to be similar to arresting people, with the property facing the charges instead. But for the average citizen without any criminal intent whatsoever, such seizures imply contesting potentially expensive lawsuits in order to recover his or her assets.

While such actions have been curtailed in a few states by ensuring that funds from auctioning seized property goes to specifically designated programs, it is still possible for police departments to benefit in cases involving federal authorities or assistance. In the event of such an inexplicable forfeiture, victims may have to approach a counsellor in order to assess the options available to them and seek, if not the return of their assets, at least adequate compensation.

Source: North Country Public Radio, "Police Can Seize And Sell Assets Even When The Owner Broke No Law," Laura Sullivan, Nov. 10, 2004

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